Early last year, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov published a report titled "Putin. Itogi," or "Putin. The Results." It was a well-documented, comprehensive, and absolutely damning critique of the corruption, authoritarianism, and general dysfunction of what they called rezhim Putina, or "Putin's regime." Most revealing was their economic argument: After eight years of Vladimir Putin's centralizing of the government and the economy, as well as the bureaucratic incompetence and cronyism his policies fostered, Russia had squandered the unique chance at modernization offered by the flush years of the early 2000s. Their conclusion: "The situation could be changed. But the current Russian authorities are neither responsible nor professional nor honest and, as such, cannot initiate change. The situation in Russia will change only when the Russians take the fate of their country in their own hands."
Despite the authors' credentials—Nemtsov was first deputy prime minister in the 1990s and a key reformer who later went into the opposition, and Milov was an early Putin-era deputy minister of energy who now heads a small Moscow think tank—their report circulated only as modern-day samizdat on the opposition Web site grani.ru and later as a thin pamphlet with a press run of 5,000. And even among the small circles of what remains of Russia's liberal intelligentsia, their critique made no waves, seeming irrelevant at a time when oil was on its way to $140 a barrel. These days, however, Nemtsov and Milov are looking startlingly prescient. This is in part because of last winter's burst in the bubble of the Russian economy, largely based on oil profits that fell to less than half of what they had been, with GDP shrinking by a 10 percent annual rate in the first quarter of this year compared with the first three months of 2008, industrial production 17 percent lower this April than a year ago, unemployment hitting 8 percent and rising rapidly, the ruble losing half of its value against the dollar, and inflation likely to reach at least 13 percent. But it's also because the economic crisis has triggered a much broader reevaluation of the Putin-era political system. Even now, with oil prices rising again and Russia's stock market beginning to bounce back, for many, the crisis still points to what a missed opportunity the last few years have been.
Russia's failure, and Putin's role in it, is now the subject of an increasingly loud, surprisingly vigorous debate playing out on the Russian-language Internet—where a host of opposition Web sites publish untouched by heavy-handed Putin-era regulations on mass media—and in the pages of the struggling but still influential Moscow liberal press. Taken together, these writings make for a new literature of crisis, an intellectual debate that is not only about that classic Russian question, Kto vinovat? but also about competing visions of Russia's future, Chto delat? In other words, not just who is to blame, but what is to be done? Russia today is not only a country battling economic crisis, but one in a crisis of political identity as well. Out of the Russian intelligentsia's struggle to understand what Putin's rule has wrought springs an effort to shape the future: Now, at least, they know what they don't want.